Julia Churchill is a dynamic, well-respected literary agent with Greenhouse Literary Agency, an international agency, started by Sarah Davies in 2008. Greenhouse represents some of my lovely SCBWI-BI pals - Jon Mayhew, Sarwat Chadda, Harriet Goodwin and Leila Rasheed – and many more besides. Julia is also involved with SCBWI-BI and gives generously of her time. Although we’ve not yet met, we’ve had several email interactions and Julia always strikes me as being friendly, professional, helpful and very knowledgeable.
Today, I’m delighted to introduce Julia Churchill to Absolute Vanilla readers.
Julia, what first drew you to the world of agenting and how did you start?
I started at the Darley Anderson Agency, which is one of the bigger independent agencies. I was Darley Anderson’s PA, then Agency Manager, then became an agent, then later Head of Children’s Books.
When I went for my first interview there, I didn’t clearly understand the agenting business. I had a notion, but in the meeting with Darley I realised I had to get the job. It sounded like such an exciting area of the business, and I wasn’t wrong.
What prompted you to join Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary?
It was an irresistible opportunity. There was something very special about Sarah, Greenhouse and the company’s ethos - which is about passion for excellence, with an emphasis on working creatively with authors.
Greenhouse was founded in 2008, and Sarah had such a great first 12 months, that she was looking for a UK agent to build the UK business so she could focus on the US. That’s where I came in.
Sarah is based in Washington, and I am in London. It’s a very elegant set-up in terms of English Language representation.
What is a typical “agenting day” like for you?
Let’s go with today.
I’m sending out a debut, which is very exciting. The third revision came in on the weekend, and is ready to roll. So I did my pitch and my submission list last night and just got it out moments ago. Emails are popping up from excited publishers, saying they love the sound of it. I have a good feeling.
First thing this morning I spoke to Kevin, our contracts supremo, about a contract we’ve been negotiating for three months. I think we’re nearly there, but I need to talk to the editor today as there’s one last point that Contracts can’t resolve between themselves.
We have an agreed contract with most of the big publishers, but this deal is our first with this house so it takes a while to get it hammered out. A key part of our job is converting a publisher-friendly contract into an author-friendly contract. A contract has a long life, so it’s important it’s negotiated well and carefully.
Lots of emails to get through this morning. I just managed to secure a great quote from a really big author for a debut book of mine, so that’s something of a triumph. Need to approve some sub-rights deals and special promotions, and a couple need to be talked through with author as they are ‘new frontier’. I’m finalising plans for two speaking events I’m doing next month. I have a couple of new book ideas from an author that I’ll think through today. Also have to agree some wording on an ebook addendum. And I have a revised synopsis I need to look at (I think she’s nailed it – yay!).
Today I need to start our Bologna ‘hot list’. The book fair is only a month away, and Sarah and I will sit side by side and pitch our new projects like demons. So much fun.
We have a great website, and I’ve just uploaded four new author interviews. Also need to check on my submissions. I’m up to date as of a few days ago, but every time I check there are loads more. That’s a good thing, but it means it’s hard to relax.
Having lunch with a publisher shortly. I have several authors with her, and we need to catch up and talk through a couple of things, not least a new deal for one of them. In some ways the second deal is more satisfying than the first (and often harder!). It’s our job to get an author writing professionally, and also to keep them writing professionally. With the second and third deals, you’re in longer term territory and that’s where we aim to get with every author.
I think I’m forgetting a few things, but I’m always busy and tomorrow will be completely different, no doubt.
Oh goodness, I’ve promised to get back on a couple of author mss this week. So that will be tonight and in the evenings this week.
What is the best part of your job – and – what is the worst?
Good news – and bad news.
How would you describe your agenting style – and that of Greenhouse Literary per se - and how do you like to work with your clients?
Supportive, honest and very hardworking.
I imagine that I’m a slightly different agent to every author, according to their needs and strengths.
How do you feel being part of what is clearly a very international agency works best for your clients?
In short, it means more money, as we’re very strong in both the English Language and translation markets.
Thankfully the world is a big place, and while one market shudders or shrinks, another grows. Some of our authors make more money in Germany or Brazil than they do in the UK or US.
Sarah and I share information constantly, so when I send out one of my UK debuts, I will have a sense of its value in the US and translation markets. Of course a book doesn’t have a real financial value until a publisher has placed an offer on it. Taking on an author is an act of faith. I might have been working on a book for a year, and think it’s HUGE, but until I get a publisher endorsing that, it’s still just an opinion. But having an impression of the international value from my colleagues means I can be clear-minded about a UK deal. For example, if I’m offered a lot of money for world rights, I can take an informed view about whether or not to accept that.
I focus on my home market, which is the UK, but I have an eye on the foreign markets too.
How to you set about sending out your clients’ work to a publisher – do you “match-make” or do submit widely?
I widely submit, on the whole. Of course, I sometimes have my favourites for each project, but often you can be surprised by who feels the passion, and who needs the book the most.
Many have said that given changes in the industry (the rise of e-publishing, the force of the likes of Amazon on publishing, development of new publishing business models, recessionary woes) the role of the agent must necessarily change. What is your view on this? And how do you see agenting going into the future?
It’s more crucial than ever, no doubt in my mind. Traditional publishing meant one type of landscape, and one type of contract. The world has got more complex and challenging. There are lots of ways to publish, and lots of ways to make money (or not…). Now more than ever you want an agent - and a team - who understand (and are able to adapt to) this developing business.
What, for you, is the key to a good story, and can you give some examples of books that really stand out for you?
A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness. I was very moved by that.
AFTER THE SNOW by SD Crockett, one of my authors. Mesmerising. I sent that book out to publishers the day I read it – the first time that’s ever happened to me. It was that perfect. And the publishers agreed.
Almost everything by Roald Dahl, for its originality and boldness.
GOODNIGHT MR TOM by Michelle Magorian. Classic, quality storytelling with a big heart.
The MR GUM books by Andy Stanton. Hilarious and pitch perfect. I also really like the David Walliams books. There’s something quite gentle and sweet about them, as well as irreverent.
THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper is a masterpiece. It’s so big and sweeping and strange and yet so controlled and focused and human. She makes epic look easy.
What do I look for in a submission? A book should have quality in its concept, voice, character, plotting, theme and setting. Of course, debut books seldom come in to us ready to be sold, but in a standout submission you will see potential in all of these elements.
Voice is inevitably hailed as the key ingredient in a strong story, how would you suggest a writer learns to discover and hone “voice”? Which authors stand out for you as having really strong voices?
I expect everyone develops their voice in different ways, but hard work and being true to oneself must always be part of that process. This is not an easy business. And the only thing you surely have is that you are yourself, and different from everyone else.
What do you think is the biggest mistake writers make in submitting material to agents or publishers?
Don’t send a first draft. Often a first time writer, or even an established writer, might not have a clear idea of what their book is, or what it’s trying to say, at that early stage. If you’ve finished your book, taken a break from it, looked at the whole and improved it as whole, those first pages, first chapters are going to be stronger. You will know clearly what your book is and where it needs to go – and you're going to get there more effectively.
A first draft is often a mess. Revision is about focusing and refining and that should happen before you let anyone read the whole, even a beta-reader in your writing group.
The publishing industry is continually on the look for the “next big thing” – what is your view about trends and do you look for stories which follow trends or do you look for stories that grab you?
I look for ‘forever’ books and tend not to follow trends too closely. I’m more concerned with a bigger picture. For example, at the moment there’s plenty of great YA but not enough great 9-12 debuts. And there are a lot of dark books, and not that many perky, life-affirming, heart-warming books.
There is plenty of opportunity in not following trends.
You’ve said in the past that talent doesn’t come along all that often, so do you feel the market is set to be dominated by a few big name authors, or do you feel that there is always room for debut authors?
The market will always be dominated by a few, but the bestsellers of tomorrow are today’s debut authors.
It’s also possible for an author to make a good living even if they’re not a big brand name. Mid-list isn’t a dirty word.
What is your sense of what publishers are looking for right now?
What they’ve always looked for, books to love. Something different, something exciting, something moving. Books that are conceptually strong with a great voice. Surprises, I suppose. And masterful storytelling.
What sort of story would grab you right now? Is there anything you’re specifically looking for?
Anything that’s wonderful! Even if it’s a hard sell, if I love it, I’ll do everything I can for it.
Are you currently open to submissions and if so, what is your preferred means of contact?
We certainly are. Take a look at our submissions page on our website.
Many thanks to Julia Churchill for this interview.
Thank you for thinking of me.
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And... here's a You Tube interview with Julia Churchill: